Chirac under fire for abdicating role during crisis

8th November 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Nov 8 (AFP) - After nearly two weeks of rioting in France's poor suburbs, president Jacques Chirac was under growing fire Tuesday for taking what appears to be a back seat role to defuse one of the country's biggest crises since World War II.

PARIS, Nov 8 (AFP) - After nearly two weeks of rioting in France's poor suburbs, president Jacques Chirac was under growing fire Tuesday for taking what appears to be a back seat role to defuse one of the country's biggest crises since World War II.

Since the violence erupted on October 27, Chirac has made only one public appearance -- on Sunday when he issued a short statement before the cameras calling for the "reestablishment of security and order."

His views have on two other occasions been relayed by the government spokesman -- the latest on Tuesday when he approved the imposition of local states of emergency at the weekly cabinet meeting.

But other than that the 72 year-old president has preferred to let his close ally prime minister Dominique de Villepin take the limelight -- as well as the combative interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy -- earning mounting criticism that he is politically "absent" during the country's direst need.

"The absence of the president of the republic is extraordinary given what we are going through," François Bayrou, head of the centrist Union for French Democracy (UDF) party, said Tuesday.

"Jacques Chirac was elected in 1995 to take action on the country's social divide, and in 2002 to take action on security. And now in our suburbs we are in the heart of precisely these two issues. We cannot have a president ... who is so distant from events," he said.

Criticism came also from the opposition left, with Socialist Party (PS) leader François Hollande saying that Sunday's three-minute appearance on radio and television was too little and too late.

"When the head of state waits ten days to speak to the French, and does it so briefly ... I get the impression that the government has not taken the measure of the crisis," he said.

"Chirac no longer sees society as it is. He doesn't understand it any more," said Noël Mamère of the opposition Greens.

The explosion in the outer urban areas or "banlieues" came as Chirac's second mandate nears its close -- elections are due in 2007 and it is increasingly unlikely that he will stand again -- and two months since he was hospitalised for a week because of a "vascular incident" that affected his eyesight.

This prompted some commentators to speculate that the president, who celebrates his 73rd birthday later this month -- has lost some of the legendary drive which has kept him at the top of politics for 40 years.

Noting his failure to influence the latest events, Les Echos financial daily said it was "as if the president's word has been sapped of energy by the erosion of power and recent political reverses" -- a reference to the rejection of the EU constitution in a referendum in May.

Comparisons were even being drawn with an earlier French president who also faced a state of national crisis caused by rioting and appeared to draw into his shell: president Charles de Gaulle at the time of the May 1968 student uprising.

During the May events de Gaulle, then aged 77, played little part in the government's response -- disappearing from view completely at the height of the violence when he flew by helicopter to Germany to ensure the loyalty of the army chief.

Instead de Gaulle delegated authority to the prime minister -- and future president -- Georges Pompidou, who eventually concluded the so-called Grenelle accords with unions that helped defuse the crisis.

According to Les Echos, Villepin is the new Pompidou, with this difference: today's prime minister "has no precise claims to satisfy, no identified interlocutor with whom to negotiate, just an enormous republican malaise to sort out."

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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